By MARSHA MERCER
You stand at the base of massive Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park, and dip your toes in the placid Rio Grande. Mexico is but a stone’s throw away.
Then you cast your eyes up and up and up. The rock wall so sheer only birds can negotiate it rises 1,500 feet – the equivalent of 150 stories. The canyon stretches 50 miles in Mexico and 10 miles in the United States.
“Looks like somebody already built a wall,” a 20-something visitor declared the other day. “Nobody could build a wall as good as God’s wall.”
To see the park and Santa Elena Canyon is to understand how a wall could ruin some of the most majestic scenery in the United States.
Yet President Donald Trump plans to wall off about 2,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, 1,250 miles of it in Southwest Texas along the Rio Grande. His budget proposes $1.5 billion to start on a project that could cost more than $20 billion.
“Splendid isolation” is how the national park describes its 800,000 rugged acres, as remote a place as any in the lower 48. It has mountains, desert, canyons, wildlife, millions of stars in an obsidian sky – and 118 miles of Rio Grande border.
About 300,000 people a year make the considerable effort to go there. We flew from Washington to Dallas to Midland-Odessa, the closest airport. It’s a 220-mile drive to the park, if you go directly. We meandered, stopping at Alpine -- county seat of Brewster County, three times the size of Rhode Island, bigger than Connecticut and less than 10,000 people – and other towns.
Trump talks about his wall as if all that matters is who’ll pay for it. In the Big Bend region, you soon learn there’s so much more to his project than pesos.
People elsewhere argue whether the wall is necessary. In Big Bend, there’s no question natural barriers already exist. A manmade wall or fence, even a mile from the river like the one already in Brownsville, would mar Big Bend’s open landscape, protected as a national park since 1935.
From Presidio, a dusty, dilapidated border town, we took Farm to Market 170, called the River Road, one of the most beautiful stretches of highway anywhere. The road hugs the Rio Grande, little wider than a stream in the current drought, with Mexico the other bank, often less than 20 feet away.
Candidate Trump promised an “impenetrable, physical, tall” wall. His fans cheered, but in the Big Bend, people worry. As for the idea of an electrified and see-through wall that wouldn’t block the view?
“I think it’s . . . asinine,” said Evelyn Glaspie, 65, of Fort Davis, one of the communities that relies on tourism. Asinine wasn’t the first word she thought of, but it’ll do. “It makes no sense,” she said.
Rep. Will Hurd, the Republican who represents the Big Bend, has 820 miles of border in his district, more than any other congressman. He has called the wall “the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border.”
At a hearing in Washington last month, Hurd showed Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly a picture of Santa Elena Canyon. He tried to get Kelly to agree that the canyon was such an obstacle no wall was needed. Kelly demurred, saying he needed to talk with the Border Patrol.
“Secretary of Homeland Security does not rule out border wall in Big Bend National Park,” read the headline in the Big Bend Gazette’s March issue.
Santa Elena is not the only formidable barrier. At the Rio Grande overlook in the park, you can see equally intimidating rock walls and cliffs as the river winds through Boquillas Canyon.
An interpretive sign calls attention to the “Wilderness Without Boundaries.” Nothing in the sweeping landscape hints where one country ends and one begins.
“The two countries also share the river environment, a narrow oasis winding through the Chihuahuan Desert,” the sign says.
For now, they do – and in spectacular fashion. Let’s hope that landscape will be protected, and not spoiled, by man.
(C) 2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.